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Has The Players Championship Been Weakened

By: | Mon 11 Mar 2024

Three years ago, The Players Championship represented something of a watershed moment for professional golf amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 12 months removed from when the rapidly growing spread of the virus saw the PGA Tour's flagship event cancelled after one round, there was a hint of normality once more at TPC Sawgrass.

Spectators were back on-site in limited numbers of 10,000 a day, but having endured months of tournaments played entirely behind closed doors, it felt like a swelled attendance to rival even the sea of humanity witnessed during a Saturday of the WM Phoenix Open.

When Justin Thomas rolled in the winning putt on a thrilling Sunday to deny the likes of Lee Westwood, Bryson DeChambeau and Brian Harman, this had the air of a big-time championship following a year of sanitised atmospheres.

And it was quite appropriate - as The Players has always carried extra significance. Dating back to when it was first inaugurated in 1974, Jack Nicklaus offered the perfect validation by winning it three times during those early editions. The Golden Bear won all the big events, so you instantly knew that this title meant something beyond the norm.

That status was only further enhanced after the creation of the Stadium Course, which was custom-built to stage one of the leading championships in the professional game. Now - like Augusta National - viewers would recognise the same holes and shots each year. Pete Dye's creation has sometimes divided opinion, especially among competitors, but it enjoys an iconic status that few other layouts on the planet can rival. Golf fans could relate the unfolding action to what they have seen previously. We knew what to expect whenever The Players came around - and that was almost guaranteed drama.

TPC Sawgrass

Being the most consequential stop on the regular PGA Tour schedule, there was a fairly convincing argument that it routinely boasted the deepest field of the season, beyond even that of the four majors. The list of winners is glittering - with a few surprise names to keep things interesting, just like those other championships that are so revered.

You may baulk at the suggestion that The Players was the unofficial 'fifth major' - but it was easily the next best thing in the game. Ultimately, a strong case could be made that The Players was at least a rival (if not beyond) in distinction to the wandering, unfocused PGA Championship.

So, what changed? Well, like just about everything in men's professional golf these days, it relates back to the emergence of LIV Golf and the subsequent divide that has ripped apart the established eco-system with consequences, both targeted and unintentional that continue to weaken the elite level as a sporting spectacle.

And The Players Championship might just be the most diminished institution of the lot.

Look back to 2023, the defending champion Cameron Smith was barred from competing after he signed up to join the Saudi-backed circuit. The Australian - who also won The 150th Open at St Andrews the previous July - lives nearby and absurdly played a nine-hole course on the sprawling property little more than a mile away from where PGA Tour loyalists were actively competing for his trophy.

The likes of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, and Patrick Reed were absent too. Scottie Scheffler displayed his typical brilliance to claim the title, but it was a Players Championship that was missing something.

In 2024, there are 144 golfers in the mix at Sawgrass, bringing together a sensational field, one of the best you'll see anywhere. But in addition to those names above - it won't have Jon Rahm, the reigning Masters champion.

The PGA Tour still markets The Players as being "the strongest field in golf" - but that rings a little hollow when you consider just who isn't there. The individual who walks away triumphant on Sunday will have a crowning achievement on his CV, $4,500,000 in prize money, and the status of being a Players champion. He will have overcome many of the greatest players in the world, but not all of them. That is a problem. Perception is everything in sport. 

It's why the position of the major championships has only been heightened by the saga of recent years. Whatever anyone thinks of LIV and what it represents, the top three in last April's Masters (Rahm, Koepka and Phil Mickelson) are now part of the rival circuit. Koepka won the PGA Championship in May and Cam Smith wasn't a million miles away at the US Open in June.

The four majors still have the majority of these names that would enhance any event participating in them. And for those who are currently looking in from the outside, there are generally ways to qualify if they so desire, especially as it relates to both Opens in the summer.

Previously, the gap between the majors and The Players was paper-thin, but the current reality of things means that the divide has widened substantially.

This isn't necessarily a critical comment on the PGA Tour itself and it most certainly, emphatically, is not in any way an endorsement of LIV, but it's a reflection of where we are now. Looking at the state of men's pro golf, the overriding theme is that everything is just a bit ruined and not as good as it was before.

Seemingly a kindred spirit, just last week, former US Open champion, Lucas Glover said: "Nothing that has happened in the last two years in golf, in my opinion, that will help the game. I’ve yet to figure out what’s so bad out here that we had to do all the things we’ve done."

None of the developments in men's pro golf since 2022 have made things better. Not the petrol billions of an autocratic regime, not the influence of private equity swirling around the PGA Tour, not the establishment of Signature Events, not the tarnishing of personal reputations, not the public squabbles between millionaires, not the continued greed of said millionaires for whom accumulating more cash seems to be the primary motivation behind just about every decision that has been made.

And it's golf fans who have lost out most of all in this perennial race to expand already bloated bank accounts.

Yes, The Players remains The Players, the next best thing, but its diminishment is a sad reflection of the game as a whole.

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Tags: TPC Sawgrass The Players Championship PGA Tour FedEx Cup

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